Aside from the odd moment of vicious excess, Alone in Berlin is a painfully restrained, humdrum tale of anti-Nazi resistance, let down by poor directorial choices.
It’s a shame, because the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel has a lot of cinematic potential. A working class couple in Berlin, they undertook a campaign of micro-resistance against the Nazi state, leaving cards with slogans such as ‘Mother! The Fuhrer murdered my son!’ around the city, before being captured and executed.
Director Vincent Perez secured Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson for the lead roles, a coup negated by having them speak in thick German accents. The combination of this and the grinding, maladroit script leaves the talented leads often chewing through dialogic stodge.
On the couple’s case is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), a baffling character who oscillates between being a Nazi true believer and a sympathetic, Wallander-style obsessive, without ever being convincing in either guise.
What the film does well is transmit the futility of individual resistance under Nazism. The state’s hegemony was absolute, and unlike in France there was no organized resistance; anyone intending on subversion would be doing so ‘alone’. However, due to Perez’s plodding direction, this isolation doesn’t translate into an atmosphere of consistent tension.
Also disappointing is the ending, which seems, completely ahistorically, to suggest that the Hampels’ actions may have helped kindle an anti-Nazi consciousness amongst Berliners. Another failure of nerve on the part of the director; far easier to retreat into the transformative comforts of fiction than to grapple with the idea that action can still be virtuous (and worth committing to film) whilst having no effect at all.